clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Dreadful Network: ‘Succession’ Turns Its Eye Toward ATN

In “Safe Room,” the HBO drama added another layer by revealing more about its Fox News stand-in than ever before

HBO/Ringer illustration

The protagonists of Succession are people with a discomfiting degree of control over the world who have precious little interaction with it. In its journey from divisive beginnings to universal acclaim, the HBO satire has danced around the problem of how to communicate the Roy family’s extreme isolation without falling victim to the same complex. To fully skewer these Murdoch-Trump-Redstone-Kennedys, Succession must show the kind of delusions that can flourish only in the absence of perspective—desert compounds named after Napoleonic battles; million-dollar checks written and ripped up without a second thought. But the show also has to imply the trickle-down effect of this greed and entitlement to lend the Roys’ buffoonery a more sinister edge.

In its first season, Succession burst its privileged bubble only sporadically. Shiv (Sarah Snook) took a job with a leftist politician who railed against the corrosive influence of her father, Logan (Brian Cox). Roman (Kieran Culkin) undertook a vanity project that “only” resulted in some light maiming (and a delightful GIF). Logan got smacked in the face with a bag of piss, presumably a metaphor for the assailant’s feelings about his integrity. But in its second season, Succession has grown more direct in its portrayal of the Roys’ broader impact without losing its eye for the narrow confines of their experience. And it’s done so in part by zeroing in on the primary link between the Roy empire and its constituents: Fox News stand-in ATN.

Apart from Kendall (Jeremy Strong) sexually harassing one of its anchors and Shiv’s boss walking out on an interview on the network, ATN’s previous presence was peripheral. But the promotion of Shiv’s brand-new husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) out of Waystar-Royco’s theme parks division and into news catalyzed an entirely new level of unsettling familiarity. A couple of weeks ago, we met ATN chief Cyd Peach (Jeannie Berlin), an executive who combines the ideological resolve of a Roger Ailes with the pugilistic steel of an Ann Coulter. And in “Safe Room,” the episode HBO dropped on Friday ahead of Labor Day weekend, ATN comes even further into focus at both ends of the spectrum. A PR crisis draws Tom further into the banality of his new fiefdom’s day-to-day evil; meanwhile, a prospective deal throws ATN into contrast with more reputable, if less profitable, sectors of the larger news landscape.

Often, the fuzziness of Succession’s world-building works to reinforce the myopia of its protagonists; for one thing, we don’t actually know what ATN stands for, literally if not figuratively. But in the case of ATN, the broad strokes also help orient the viewer in this fictional media environment by prompting us to fill in the blanks with knowledge of our own. To wit: We don’t see any actual TV appearances from the embattled star anchor whose indiscretions—as Greg (Nicholas Braun) helpfully summarizes, “fascist meeting, Nazi wedding, Hitler dog”—Tom is tasked with perfunctorily vetting. But as a young, clean-cut demagogue with barely veiled sympathies toward the Third Reich, it’s not hard to interpret him as some combination of Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, and Richard Spencer. We don’t need many details on the man one character sneeringly deems “Walmart Mussolini,” because the real-life infotainment economy offers plenty of precedents. (Not that Succession can’t sneak in more pointed barbs when it feels like it; rightfully praised as Vaulter’s faux clickbait may be, don’t sleep on ATN’s “How Guns Make Us Safe” segment from the same episode.)

Such forays into the making of ATN’s propagandistic sausage don’t distract from the depravity of its executives, but reinforce it. Unlike true believer Cyd, Tom doesn’t actually appear to buy into the fearmongering or nativist paranoia. (“Everybody’s against racism, Greg,” he scoffed at the idea he might have ethical qualms about taking the reins at ATN.) Yet the surface-level liberalism makes his willingness to make nice with a repeat reader of Mein Kampf—“Were there Easter eggs you missed the first time?”—only that much worse. Tom is a creature of pure ambition; all he cares about is getting one step closer to the inner sanctum that gives the episode its name, whatever the cost. He knows enough to be aware that “the devastation of Europe” is not the right answer when asked about the foremost tragedy of World War II, which means he can be judged for forging ahead in the name of sycophantic ladder-climbing.

“Safe Room” also introduces Rhea Jarrell, the CEO of Logan’s latest acquisition target played by the tremendous Holly Hunter. (Hunter’s casting has a bit of a meta wink; 30 years after she portrayed an idealistic TV journalist in Broadcast News, she’s now embodying the cynicism her former role once lamented.) Jarrell heads PGM, a business that, like Waystar-Royco, is family owned; the “P” stands for “Pierce.” That’s about all they have in common. PGM has all the respect, principles, and sanctimony Waystar does not, and it filters its editorial decisions through the lens of liberal piety instead of right-wing sensationalism. This equal-yet-opposite dichotomy is perfectly expressed in Rhea’s spin on Logan’s signature catchphrase, as he paraphrases the Pierce clan’s initial response to his offer: “The message would be a typically balanced, nuanced, and objective ‘fuck off.’”

When a shooting scare strands Rhea in the namesake chamber with Logan, Kendall, and Shiv, the contrast only deepens. The anchor controversy had already provoked competing protests outside Waystar-Royco HQ, pitting flannel-clad defenders—“our assholes,” as Tom describes them—against steel-booted antifa. When a gunshot rings out in the ATN newsroom, its programmers are quick to assume the worst and stoke that fear in their viewership: “ATN Under Attack,” reads the chyron on the live broadcast. (Earlier, Cyd had proposed defending the anchor with the spin “ATN Under Siege.”) We never see the network issue a correction once the “attack” turns out to be a segment producer’s suicide and not antifa, who Logan casually refers to as “pieces of shit.” Needless to say, the coverage on the Pierce-owned PGN put on to appease Rhea is significantly more measured.

Such an up-close-and-personal look at ATN clarifies Rhea’s initial revulsion—and, retroactively, why a potential business partner freely compared Kendall’s last name to Hitler’s last season. But as negotiations progress, the surface-level split between the two companies only underlines the basic similarities at the top. Rhea may protest that their conflicting ideologies “stink up the deal,” but her objections quickly die down once Logan and Kendall start throwing out numbers high enough to pique her interest. The dignified standard-bearer is ultimately just as rapacious as her less highly regarded counterparts. And rather than use PGM as Waystar-Royco’s foil—a “good,” responsible use of dynastic power to the Roys’ pure self-interest—Succession fortifies its case against all members of America’s plutocracy, some more cosmetically appealing than others.

The ATN subplot isn’t this season’s only example of heightened specificity; elsewhere in the episode, management training brings a hilariously unprepared Roman into contact with the hoi polloi. But especially in “Safe Room,” ATN is Succession’s finest instance of leaving its characters’ comfort zone to show the true cost of that comfort. We now understand more of what the Roys pump into the media’s bloodstream, as well as just how little they believe it: When we see general counsel Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) relaxing at home, she’s tuned into PGN.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.